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Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice

“You always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.” — Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf

Speed skaters go faster. Pole vaulters jump higher. Athletes over a wide range of sports improve their performance.

But not free throw shooters in basketball. According to a story on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, the rate at which players make foul shots has stayed remarkably unchanged over the last few decades.

 The story quotes Larry Wright, an adjunct professor of statistics at Columbia, as calling the year-by-year averages “unbelievable.” “There’s almost no difference. Fifty years. This is mind-boggling.”

The question, of course, is why?  With shooting coaches in abundance and fortunes awaiting players who can score, why doesn’t the average go up? 

It’s safe to say that every basketball team practices free throws. But the issue isn’t just whether the team practices, or even how much it practices. The issue is HOW it practices.

How many teams engage in deliberate practice?

A 2006 article in Fortune magazine gives a superb portrait of deliberate practice. “It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.”

The Times article cites a practice at Southern Utah, where Coach Roger Reid attaches a consequence to missed free throws. Does Reid’s approach amount to deliberate practice? Maybe. Maybe not. But his attention to the task has helped his team make a dramatic improvement in free throw shooting.

Many coaches understand the importance of free throws. Not as many devote the right kind of time to it. Even fewer devote the right amount of time with the right approach.

But those who do will get better, better than the average over the last 40 years.


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